The sweet life of Silay

The Balay Negrense is now a museum.

MANILA, Philippines - There is a certain pride that is palpable in Silay City, Negros Occidental - whether talking to locals who generously share stories of their ancestors who were instrumental in the birth and flourishing of the bustling city, or just seeing the lo-vingly preserved heritage houses, a concrete testament to the pride Silay has in its roots.

Dubbed as the "Paris of Negros," Silay has always been a cosmopolitan city, with haciendero families importing materials for their houses from Europe, evident in the architecture of the heritage houses that still stand today.

With the international airport located here, Silay continues to serve as the gateway to Negros. Inevitably, visitors will pass through the city on the way to and from the airport, but there are many worthwhile places to explore in Silay.

Balay Negrense, the ancestral house of Victor Fernandez Gaston, is a two-story museum that shows the life of a wealthy sugar planter. Gaston was the son of Yves Leopold Germaine Gaston, a Frenchman who is credited with revolutionizing the sugar industry of Negros. At the time it was constructed in the late 1890s, it was the largest home on the island.

With each room set up as if it were frozen in the early 20th century, it is like stepping into the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grand piano (a status symbol) sits open, waiting for the sugar don's daughters to perform; the long dining table is set, ready for the arrival of dinner guests; the owner of the suitcases in the master's bedroom has yet to unpack from a trip.

Our guide tells us how the doña would make a grand entrance at parties, from the rooms on the second floor, stopping midway down the staircase for a quick touch-up, then coming down to greet the guests waiting below.

One can only imagine how opulent life was. Those whose third eyes are open even say that they can see the party guests who never left! Indeed, who would want to leave a lively party in this golden era?

Just like Balay Negrense, many other heritage houses have been seeing new life, refreshed as dining establishments, while carefully retaining the old world façade. Among them, El Ideal has become a must-visit for first timers, and a well-loved place for regulars.

With shelves filled to the brim with piaya, barquillos and every other confection that sugarland has to offer, pasalubong shopping is easy to do here. They will even box all the items up neatly for you, which is especially convenient if you stop by on the way to the airport.

Touted as Silay's original bakery (opening in the 1920s), El Ideal is found in the Cesar Lacson Locsin ancestral house, another prominent family in the history of Silay. The business and recipes have been handed down through generations and the bakery is still run by the family.

El Ideal's specialty is the guapple pie - an apple pie with the delightful addition of guava - which is best enjoyed with freshly brewed local coffee, of course sweetened with muscovado sugar.

To really be immersed in the haciendero life, visitors can now choose to stay at a heritage house. Opening just in June this year, the ancestral home of German Locsin Unson and Fe dela Rama Ledesma Unson is the first bed-and-breakfast of its kind in Silay.

There are four spacious rooms in the two-story house, all decorated with artifacts from the past - fine china, old typewriters, the original wardrobes and more. Notable is the bathroom adjacent to the master's bedroom on the ground floor, which features an almost floor-to-ceiling glass case displaying the matriarch's seashell collection.

The house was originally owned by Lope dela Rama, one of the leaders of Silay during the Spanish times, along with revolutionary leader Leandro Locsin and Timoteo Unson.

The house was passed on to daughters Ma. Lourdes and Cristina, who now run the B&B. Granddaughter Marni, who took up interior design, oversaw the renovations of the house, restoring it to the original design.

It is no surprise that locals take great pride in their city. Many of them have a deeply-rooted heritage that they can trace back to the very founding fathers of Silay. The city speaks of the sophistication of another era through its art and architecture.

With many of its ancestral houses being restored and preserved, we are at least able to get a taste of that sweet life.

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